Interview: Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer on the casualties of climate change
Over the past four years, New York Times photographer Josh Haner has used drone footage and stills to document the effects of climate change around the world.
His focus is on people displaced by sea-level rise, flooding, drought and deforestation, and on the natural and cultural loss that this brings.
A selection of his work went on display this month at Photo London in Somerset House. Haner spoke with chinadialogue on the sidelines of the event.
Beth Walker (BW): How did this project come into being? Did it grow organically from what you were seeing, or did you have a grand vision?
Josh Haner (JH): When I started I was very much trying to utilise a new technology. I’d been studying drones for much of a year and was trying to find the first story a drone could bring richer storytelling to. And so when I travelled to Greenland to shadow the US ambassador I used this as an excuse to bring a drone and look for a story. I found some researchers looking at meltwater lakes and rivers on top of Greenland’s largest ice sheet and brought my drone on a helicopter to their camp. When I brought the footage back it was so visceral and made the impact of climate change so palpable that we decided to dedicate more resources towards telling stories about climate change. As a result, we’ve turned the traditional way of journalists on its head. Instead of this series being led by the writers, it was led by the photographers.
BW: One striking thing about this exhibition is how you’ve captured the scale of climate change with drone footage, but also the human stories behind this. How did you combine the two?
JH: I think a lot of people in the canon of aerial photography focus on abstractions. I find this beautiful but at the same time removed from the human aspect – that emotional connection. So in all the locations I went to I made sure to photograph still imagery from the ground and tell the more personal stories. I think this is really effective to show the breadth of the story – that climate change is not only impacting the environment – but that people are also dealing with it.
BW: Is there a personal story that’s really stayed with you?
JH: This picture [below] is of a woman from Buariki [an island in the Pacific Ocean] whose home is on the edge of a receding beach. She decided, along with nine other women from her town, to harvest saplings from nearby mangrove trees and plant them at low tide along the borders with their homes. These are small acts that won’t impact her but will impact generations ahead. When these mangroves start to grow their root structure holds onto the land to prevent erosion. For me, seeing communities that are not only thinking about their lifetime, but their children and their children’s children, and trying to prepare for future degradation of their environment, was really inspiring.
BW: In China you visited Ningxia and Inner Mongolia. What was your focus there?
JH: Our focus was on desertification and “ecological migrants”. In China we analysed satellite images from as far back [in the past] as we could get on the borders of the Tengger desert and we identified seven locations along the southern border where we’d seen the desert advancing. I went to all seven places to try and figure out where people were most impacted. We found a family who was dealing with the effects of desertification.
In China, the government had already resettled many people to these relocation villages and [the family] had decided to remain behind. China cut off all state funding, I believe, to these areas, in terms of water and assistance, to encourage people to move to these very modern, very structured resettlement communities. So if you chose to remain behind you did so at your own risk.
BW: Another thing you are trying to show is the loss of culture along with climate change. Did you find this in the resettlement communities?
JH: China is very successful at moving lots of people very quickly. What they are less successful at is planning for the individual differences in the communities that they are relocating. This is an ethnic [Hui] Muslim population that has been removed yet their showers and toilets were put in the same room. There was a lack of understanding of what was required for those particular cultures. I also saw there was not enough forethought put into employment opportunities for this village.
Most people had come from an agrarian background where they grow their own food and raise their own sheep. And now they had a plot of land roughly 10 square metres to grow what crops they could. And you saw people walking their sheep around a neighbourhood built in an equally arid location. The women from the village were doing most of the work. They were walking to a watermelon plantation where they were spending backbreaking hours working while many of the men stayed at home because there were no careers for them built into this new area.
I hope we see some improvement because we are seeing this [displacement] all over the world. People have to be resettled in the US. In Louisiana [I took photos] of a community that received the first federal funding to relocate [because of climate change]. And the logistics of moving just 80 families in one community from a plot of land – an isolated strip of land – was huge.
BW: For your last project you went to the Galápagos Islands, where climate change is affecting the coral and fish, and the sea lions and birds that depend on them. I hear you learnt to dive to take these photos?
JH: I didn’t want to dive. I had massive ear pressure problems as a child. But when we started researching the effects of climate change in the Galápagos, it became obvious that most of the changes were happening underwater. So I had to learn not only how to scuba dive but to use a camera underwater. I had a great teacher in California, who was also an underwater photographer. I thought it was going to be warmer in the Galápagos, but it wasn’t and the currents were very intense. [We had to] duck out of the way of marine iguanas who hold onto rocks to feed off algae. This was one of our major stories – how marine iguanas are being affected through lack of food in the ocean. They are one of the most spectacular species in the world. We don’t know much about them, but the size of the skeletons contract during periods of food stress. So I knew I needed to document their lifestyle.
They swim during this season for an hour a day and the rest of the time they are sunning themselves on the rocks because they’re warm blooded and have to feed in freezing waters. So we had to time our arrival at these locations for a one-hour window. Communities have shrunk over the years so it’s very difficult to find them and they are camouflaged.
We also spent months dealing with permits to be able to visit places off limit to tourists and accompanied by a park ranger at all times to monitor our impact on the environment and the species and make sure we weren’t disturbing animals.
BW: What are you planning next?
JH: What I want to focus on going forward, now that we have showed the doomsday scenario of how climate change is impacting people’s lives, is to look at solutions. The hard part of a lot of the climate work is trying to visualise something that is so abstract and happens on a glacial timescale. The only place I visited where something was happening was in Jakarta where sea walls failed while I walked through a neighbourhood. [The Indonesian capital is rapidly sinking, with 40% of the city already below sea level]. Then we saw all these people running with blue vests to fix the sea wall.
The biggest difficulty in covering climate change is finding arresting visuals that people can relate to and that aren’t the used canon of climate change we’ve come to expect, of the polar bear on the last piece of ice in the Arctic or melting glaciers.